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by Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn
October 16, 2013 10:48 AM
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How Has Spike Jonze's 'Her' Changed the Oscar Race? Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn Revisit Awards Season Buzz

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her." WB

With Oscar season in full swing, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn and senior writer Peter Knegt revisit the buzz after debating the field last month. In the following e-mail exchanges, they address several issues. Among them: Has Spike Jonze's "Her" shaken up the list of frontrunners? Why don't the right foreign language film contenders get nominated? And why aren't we more excited about the Indie Spirit Awards? Read on and decide for yourself.

ERIC KOHN: No hiding from it now: I guess we're now in the throes of Oscar season. Like the imminent cold of winter, it's one of those times of year you can anticipate as much as you want and still not fully know what to expect. Plus, no matter how clearly it's mapped out on the calendar, the damn thing sneaks up on you. One moment I'm relaxing at the cozy cinephile-friendly Telluride Film Festival, the next moment it has transformed into the platform that launched perceptions of "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" duking it out for best picture.

And, lo, Oscar season continues to evolve. Just when we felt like we had a handle on the awards fervor, anticipating the possibilities of "American Hustle" and "Saving Mr. Banks" complicating the race if not dramatically shaking it up, here comes Spike Jonze's "Her." The movie made its world premiere at New York Film Festival and turned out to be really, really good -- maybe even the director's best work, and certainly one of star Joaquin Phoenix's best performances. This gentle near-future love story about a man who falls head over heels for his operating system (smartly embodied by invisible Scarlett Johansson) isn't just one of those whimsical instances of creative storytelling that makes somebody like me play fantasy Oscars and pretend it has a shot. It's a seriously compelling and thoughtful narrative that's both intelligently attuned to the impact of technology on our most intimate selves and a totally accessible, delicate love story.

It also strikes me as an ideal crowd pleaser alternative to the otherwise bleak field of awards contenders. I love "12 Years a Slave" and find "Gravity" to be a wonderfully visceral experience, but while both leave you reeling in various ways, "Her" provides an ebullient alternative without compromising its brainier aspects. Maybe it's too light for major awards season traction, but I would imagine Phoenix has a definite shot at best actor while Jonze seems like he's a lock for Best Original Screenplay and even best director. Plus, there's talk of Johansson landing a supporting actress nomination for her voice acting, which would be unprecedented.

Now look into your crystal ball and tell me: How likely is it that these events will occur? Are there far too many surprises still in store to make any strong determinations? Or did this race really solidify back in Telluride? I tried asking these questions to Siri but she just googled them and your name came up. Enlighten me.

PETER KNEGT: I'm not sure if I can offer much more than Siri. But on that note, the first thing that popped into my head Oscar-wise when it came to "Her" was indeed Scarlett Johansson's titular, voice-only performance as a fictional version of where Siri herself could be headed. Best supporting actress is a bit of weak field, Johansson is overdue, and hey, if Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo can get traction for wordless performances (as Robert Redford is likely to do this year), why not the opposite?

But tell that to Ellen DeGeneres ("Finding Nemo"), Eddie Murphy ("Mulan") and Robin Williams ("Aladdin"), who all prompted many to say that they were deserving of accomplishing the same result in previous years. That's to say nothing of Andy Serkis, whose motion capture work in the "Lord of the Rings" films also got an Oscar push to no avail. I guess all I'm saying is that Johansson is a possibility, but to do so she'd have to overcome a very specific stigma.

But yes: "Her" itself could definitely factor in. And it sure does help that it stands out so much as one of the very few original (as in not about a historical event or real-life figure) studio titles in the mix this year. In that regard, it's basically just "Her" and  "Gravity" (which are oddly both being released by Warner Brothers), and they are extremely different films. "Her" will not be an Oscar movie on the level of "Gravity," but depending on how the Academy responds to it, it could get a couple nominations for sure (I'd even say Spike Jonze is the frontrunner for original screenplay this point).

I guess it also depends on the final four -- "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Monuments Men" and (maybe?) "The Wolf of Wall Street." While I do believe a sizable portion of this race is solidified (it's going to take a lot to break into the "Gravity" vs. "12 Years a Slave" narrative that is rock solid right now), there's still room for a shakeup. It's still six weeks until the December onslaught of critics awards (not to mention SAG and Golden Globe nominations) make thing a lot clearer. Though next week we do already have the official kickoff with the Gotham Award nominations...

3 Comments

  • Dowals | October 16, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    If you *heard* "The Lunchbox" was a "coming of age drama," you heard so wrong.

  • Brent | October 16, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    If "Gravity" win Best Picture, it will be the best film to win the honor in a good number of years, which is kind of sad given how imperfect the storytelling in the film is in a lot of ways.

    If "Her" and "12 Years a Slave" are as good as they sound, I'm going to have a tough time knowing who to root for this year. I feel that Jonze, Cuaron, and McQueen all got screwed out of Oscar nominations (and in some cases, wins) that they deserved in the past.
    But here I am getting my hopes up. Knowing the Academy, they'll find a way to limit the choices and then hand the gold to something generic and heavy-handed (I'm potentially looking at you, "Monuments Men").

  • Carol M | October 16, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    Gravity was good but Best Picture? No way!